CORTEZ – Opponents of the Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) plans for the replacement of the Cortez Bridge have filed a petition for a formal administrative hearing before the State of Florida’s Division of Administrative Hearings.
The petition is in response to FDOT’s written announcement on Oct. 10 that stated FDOT’s Office of Environmental Management granted location and design concept acceptance for the bridge replacement project that calls for a 65-foot-tall fixed-span bridge to someday replace the aging drawbridge on Cortez Road.
The FDOT acceptance signaled the end of the Project, Design and Environment (PD&E) study phase and allows the project to move into the design phase. Filed in accordance with Florida Statutes, the petition challenges that FDOT acceptance.
Former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash is serving as the qualified representative for the petitioners – a group that also includes former County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, Cortez residents Linda Molto and Joe Kane, the ManaSota-88 organization, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH) and the Cortez Village Historical Society.
Von Hahmann signed and verified the notarized petition on Oct. 23.
The petition names the State of Florida Department of Transportation as the respondent.
The first page of the 23-page document states all the petitioners would have their substantial interests affected by agency action that permits the existing drawbridge to be replaced with a 65-foot-tall fixed-span bridge instead of a new and drawbridge.
“The 65-foot high level-fixed bridge will impact the maritime culture of the fishing village of Cortez and its fishing industry,” the petition says of FISH’s statutory right to initiate the challenge.
“The 65-foot high level-fixed bridge will create immediate harm to the historic fishing village of Cortez,” the petition says regarding the historical society’s right to challenge.
“Members recreate throughout the region including the area of the Cortez Bridge and have concerns that the fixed span bridge will impact environmental, aesthetic, cultural and natural resources,” the petition says of ManaSota-88’s right to challenge.
“The proposed action of a 65-foot high level-fixed bridge immediately affects the petitioner’s substantial interest in the use of the navigation waters at the Cortez Bridge with a sailboat having a mast height of 60 feet,” the petition says of McClash’s standing as a petitioner.
The petition states von Hahmann has lived in the village of Cortez for 43 years and owns commercial and residential rental property in the village. It also states Kane resides at Fewville, a tiny village located within the historic village of Cortez, and Molto is a 32-year resident of Cortez who lives in one of the oldest houses in the village.
The petition states the FDOT action impacts the various petitioners’ quality of life, environment, financial well-being, mobility and the preservation of the village they enjoy and intend to continue enjoying.
The petition states a 65-foot bridge would create a dangerous intersection of offsetting streets with no safe pedestrian crossing, create an unacceptable increase in noise levels, divide the neighborhood with a wall-like structure and change the aesthetics of the village of Cortez in contravention of the county’s land-use restrictions.
When contacted, McClash said the FDOT attorney has acknowledged the petition was filed and will either accept it as filed or find flaws and request corrections.
Barring a successful motion to dismiss, McClash expects an administrative law judge from the Division of Administrative Hearings to conduct a hearing and issue a recommended order. McClash said FDOT would then issue its own final orders.
“It’s a little bit of an unfair process because the final action goes to the agency that wanted to permit what you’re challenging. Even if you have facts in your favor, the department has a lot of discretion when it comes to entering these final orders.” McClash said.
“I think FDOT definitely missed informing the public of the impact of the 18-foot-high sound walls,” McClash said.
As noted in the petition, McClash and his fellow-petitioners dispute FDOT’s claim that 75% of those who attended a public hearing in 2017 supported the 65-foot bridge option.
McClash said the petitioners’ ultimate hope is that FDOT rescinds its PD&E study-based action, addresses the concerns of the community and opts for a new drawbridge instead.
On Oct. 31, FDOT spokesperson Brian Rick provided The Sun with the state agency’s initial response to the petition.
“We have received the Petition for Formal Administrative Hearing for the Cortez Bridge. The department is highly confident that we followed all applicable state and federal guidelines related to this PD&E study; however, since this now a legal matter, we cannot provide comment,” Rick said via email.